Conventions for naming suttas?

Apparently Pali suttas were given names, but sūtras in the Chinese āgamas usually have no names attached to them, and are simply numbered.

For the Pali texts, does anyone know how the names were decided? Were there some common conventions based on how they were recited, or did they tend to follow the main subject, and fall back on names or places?

The titles we use currently are usually derived from the uddānas, the summary verses at the end of the chapter. These are fairly consistent between editions, but not as consistent as the main text. In addition, because the uddānas are metrical, they are often quite obscure, compressing or compounding words and so on. So the inferred titles often differ between editions.

A quick regex reveals that of the 5830 recognized suttas in our Mahasangiti edition, there are 1461 with variant titles, so about 25%. Of course, many of these are trivial variants.

As to the principle used, the basic principle seems to be what is memorable. The uddānas originated as a mnemonic aids. So some distinctive feature of the text is chosen, typically a subject. If it prominently involves someone other than the Buddha, that person is often named.


Thank you for this. It’s very informative and helpful.

I have generally been sticking to the titles as defined here, but some of these just don’t make sense, or don’t represent the topic very well. In the future I guess I will take them as a recommendation, and try to consider some title that is short, memorable, and representative.

Sure, there’s no need to stick too rigidly to them.

What I’ve noticed in reciting is that sometimes the titles make sense from a recitation perspective; for some reason a word might stick out, have a distinctive sound or rhythm to it. I can’t think of any example off the top of my head. But there are cases like this in the patimokkha.

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Right, maybe something distinctive from the beginning of the sutta, to help remind the reciter.

I have started doing segmented translations with JSON files, and so I was revisiting SA 801.

In the index, this sūtra is called “Abundant Benefits.” But the main subject is five principles for cultivating ānāpāna. To more clearly represent the subject of the text, I instead titled it “Ānāpānasmṛti Dharmas.” That exact phrase does not appear in the text, though, and it’s kind of a mouthful. Near the beginning, the Buddha says, “There are five dharmas…” So as a result, it now seems to me that calling it “Five Dharmas” would be better.